Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross was a top shareholder in a Cypriot bank with deep Russian ties when he met with the principal Russian investor.
That meeting lasted only an hour, according to a cursory account Ross provided to the Senate. What he discussed during the encounter and the identity of the investor are among a number of unanswered questions about Ross’ potential connections to influential Russian figures as he awaits a vote on his confirmation Monday.
Ross, 79, is not accused of any wrongdoing. But his potential confirmation draws further attention to the large number of President Donald Trump’s appointees and confidants with Russian connections. The pattern is all the more noteworthy after the resignation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn this month for lying about his discussion of Russian sanctions with that country’s U.S. ambassador, and after reports that American intelligence organizations and Congress are investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Ross is expected to sail through his confirmation vote with bipartisan support, in spite of a Feb. 16 letter from six Democratic senators asking him to provide more information about his Russian ties and a follow-up letter from New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, sent last Friday.
A Putin connection?
The first letter asked Ross to elaborate on his relationship with the bank’s Russian shareholders — some of whom reportedly have strong ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin — and his knowledge of any contacts between “Russian interests” and Trump’s campaign or The Trump Organization. As of last Friday afternoon, Ross had yet to respond, according to a Senate aide.
Booker, who signed the first letter, asked for additional details about Ross’ history with the bank and his travels to Cyprus and Russia.
“The list of Russian businessmen elite with ties to both President Putin and the Bank of Cyprus is startling,” Booker wrote.
The letters were the first sign of a glitch in Ross’ otherwise smooth confirmation process.
He was not on a list of eight Cabinet nominees whose appointments Senate Democrats planned to stall. That list was first reported by The Washington Post. A senior Democratic aide said Ross did not fit into the two categories of nominees who most concerned Democrats: those with major conflicts of interest and those who advocated policies contrary to Trump’s campaign promises.
And 15 Democrats, along with independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, contributed to a 66-31 vote to advance Ross’ nomination to a final confirmation before the Presidents Day recess.
“I think, basically, it has fallen through the cracks,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the liberal-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research. “I’m staggered by how this is getting through.”
Hauser said progressive groups have been ill-equipped to draw public attention to Ross’ confirmation because they don’t typically focus on the the Commerce Department. They have also been distracted by other nominees with more clear-cut conflicts — such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ alleged racially charged comments in the 1980s, or EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s history of suing the agency he now heads.
But some groups have called for a pause in Ross’ confirmation process until more is known about his Russian connections.
“We need to know more,” said Karl Frisch, executive director of Allied Progress, a liberal advocacy group that targets Wall Street power and influence. “If Donald Trump is going to be entrusting this man to be sort of a trade envoy to the rest of the world, we need to know where he is compromised.”
Ross, a billionaire investor who made his fortune turning around bankrupt companies, led a 2014 rescue of the Bank of Cyprus. He became the vice chairman of the bank’s board of directors. He still held an 18 percent share in the bank when he was nominated by Trump, according to the McClatchy news agency, whose reporting was cited in the Senate Democrats’ letter.
The second largest shareholder in the bank is Renova Corp. led by Viktor Vekselberg, an associate of Putin. Another Putin associate and former KGB member, Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, once served as the bank’s vice chairman.
Booker homed in on two additional connections. Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian billionaire and “significant co-investor” in the bank, bought a Palm Beach house from Trump in 2008 for $95 million.
Josef Ackermann, whom Ross appointed as chairman of the bank’s board, was the former board chairman of Deutsche Bank when it was “engaged in Russian money laundering,” Booker wrote. He also pointed out that Ackermann “knows Putin well,” and was the largest single lender to The Trump Organization.
Under his initial government ethics agreement, Ross pledged to resign from the board upon confirmation. In an updated agreement signed Jan. 31, he said he would divest his Bank of Cyprus holdings within 90 days of confirmation.
Ross did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
His history with the bank did not come up during his Jan. 18 confirmation hearing. But Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell sent him a follow-up question asking about his relationship with Russian investors. Ross mentioned his meeting with the bank’s principal investor in his response.
The Democrats who signed the follow-up letter — Commerce Committee ranking member Bill Nelson of Florida, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Booker — did not return requests for comment last week, while Congress was on recess.
Sen. John Thune, the Commerce chairman, said earlier this month that he did not expect the vocal and sustained opposition to Ross that other nominees have experienced. The South Dakota Republican also brushed aside the significance of the letter.
“I think it’s the environment we’re in,” he said. “I don’t anticipate that it affects anything in terms of the votes.”
Bridget Bowman and Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.